Two beloved faculty members — history professor George Chauncey ’77 GRD ’89 and his husband, film studies professor Ronald Gregg — will be leaving Yale for Columbia University at the end of this academic year.
Chauncey, who specializes in 20th century U.S. lesbian and gay history, and Gregg, a professor of American studies and film and media studies who serves as director of film programming at Yale’s Whitney Humanities Center, are both on leave this spring. Students and faculty close to Chauncey and Gregg told the News that their joint departure strikes a blow both to Yale’s LGBT studies program and to the professors’ large following of students and colleagues on campus.
“We’re both excited about going to Columbia, but I have to say I’m sad to leave Yale, which has played such a large role in my life from the days I was a student here to my last 11 years on the faculty,” Chauncey said. “The students here have been so amazing to work with.”
The couple, who have been together for two decades and were married in 2014, arrived at Yale in the fall of 2006.
Chauncey said the decision to move was incredibly difficult, but when Columbia expressed interest last year, he and Gregg decided it was their “last best chance” to set their lives in New York City, where they can continue their research on the city’s postwar gay culture and politics and postwar queer avant-garde filmmakers, respectively.
Chauncey added that when he finishes his next book in a few years, he will organize a series of international working groups on various topics within the history of sexuality, and Columbia makes for a good larger collective research base.
Chauncey is the co-director of the Yale Research Initiative on the History of Sexualities and has served as the chair of the History Department, chair of LGBT studies and both director of graduate studies and undergraduate studies for American studies. He won the Sidonie Miskimin Clauss Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities in 2012, has contributed as a historian to more than 30 gay rights legal cases — including the two same-sex marriage cases the Supreme Court decided in 2013 — and has won numerous awards for his book “Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940.”
“I think [Chauncey] was recruited as the leader of gay history in America, and he departs, still, as that leader,” said Kathryn Lofton, professor of American studies and chair of the Religious Studies Department. “There are very few scholars who retain their standard of excellence in pedagogical performance and in intellectual commitment, and he remains now as ever a person for whom there is no comparison. It’s just a mark of his own discipline and uniqueness.”
Many students know Chauncey from taking his popular lecture, U.S. Lesbian and Gay History, affectionately called “LesGay,” which he said attracted 325 students this fall. When he first started teaching the course a decade ago, only 25 students were enrolled, according to Chauncey.
Chauncey said he considers Yale to be a much more “open and diverse place” now than it was when he was a student, adding that he is grateful to see many students expressing interest in this field of history while willing to have some of their core assumptions challenged.
“I’m really grateful for the fact that students have been so engaged with my classes, and honestly, I feed off of the energy of the students when I’m teaching, whether it’s in the lecture course or in the seminar I taught this fall,” Chauncey said, referring to his Topics in Gay and Lesbian History seminar. “I’m usually on a high all fall long because I’m teaching [U.S. Lesbian and Gay History]. It’s obvious I love teaching LesGay, and the fact that students have responded to it so much has really been one of the great experiences of my life.”
Many of Gregg’s film courses focus on queer cinema and classical and contemporary Hollywood. As the Whitney Humanities Center’s programming director, he has organized workshops, conferences and campus visits by filmmakers and scholars.
Gregg has lectured and curated film and video programming for film festivals including the Chicago gay and lesbian film Reeling Festival and the San Francisco International LGBT Frameline Film Festival.
Chauncey, speaking on Gregg’s behalf, said Gregg has always appreciated the drive and creativity of Yale students and has found it rewarding to advise budding campus filmmakers and watch the student film community grow over the last decade.
Gregg will be teaching similar courses at Columbia, with the added benefit of New York City being that students have access to more film archives, Chauncey said.
Lofton, who has grown close to Chauncey and Gregg since she arrived at Yale in 2009, praised Gregg’s passion and generosity.
“Losing [Gregg] is losing a particular person who is so singularly alive and passionate and interested in human creativity and how it manifests especially in students in their work, their plays, their writing,” Lofton said. “But also the ways in which he wanted to be a curator for the University, of its archives and its cultural landscape, so that all of us had access to performance artists and alternative film and obscure first drafts by filmmakers that would later become famous. … That sense that every time you opened your email, you were hearing an announcement not just of a film or of a talkback after a film, but a reminder of human plurality — the plurality of feeling, of pleasure, of pain.”
Students also praised the scholarship of Chauncey and Gregg and pondered what their departures mean for the University. Joshua Tranen ’18, a WKND Editor for the News who has worked closely with both professors, said Chauncey — his academic advisor, with whom he also does research — is both a “brilliant scholar” and “wonderful teacher and mentor” who deeply cares about his students. Tranen added that Gregg is an important campus figure who has made valuable contributions both to Yale’s film studies program and to the study of queer history and aesthetics.
Tranen said the pair’s decision to leave Yale, following recent departures of other LGBT studies professors including Jafari Allen and Karen Nakamura, renders the future of LGBT studies at Yale in an “extremely tenuous position.”
“I think it is more important than ever to study LGBTQ history and queer cinema,” said Anya Markowitz ’17, who took Chauncey’s lecture and seminar. “In this climate, Professor Chauncey’s work is crucial, reminding students that LGBTQ history is not a modern fad, a product of the last 20 years or a niche study. It is constant, crucial, living, breathing works of activism, theory and action, and it must be protected at all cost.”
Markowitz said she has taken the methodologies and knowledge she learned in Chauncey’s classes into the rest of her studies and endeavors.
Alex Schultz ’17, a student who has done research for and been mentored by both professors, called both Chauncey and Gregg “superstars” in their respective fields, recalling that the gay and lesbian archive in Los Angeles where he did research this summer had a letter from Chauncey describing the importance of queer archives framed and hung on the wall. He added that Gregg’s work within the field of queer filmmaking has shaped Yale’s own film archive, which now holds queer films that can’t be accessed by students in most other places.
“It’s difficult to describe exactly what presence Chauncey and Gregg bring to Yale, because I can’t imagine my time here without them,” Schultz said. “It’s not uncommon to see [Gregg] at Maison Mathis for hours at a time meeting with students. That level of generosity and openness, and the desire to nurture intellectual curiosity will be so missed with their departure.”